A Car Photography Light Painting Guide

When light painting a car you will want to be sure you have the equipment you need. You’ll also want to have a checklist covering the exposures you need so you do not forget any. We will cover those essential exposures (as well as optional), and we will look at some tips to keep in mind both before and during your photoshoot.

Equipment

You will need a camera with a timer, lens, tripod, ball head (if your tripod requires one), and a light source. You will also require a good quality memory card (don’t cheap out on these) and perhaps an extra battery just in case, although you should be fine with the one battery.

Pre-Shoot

Even though the shots here are needed, depending on the exposure time as well as the colour of the car you might be able to cover more than one of these shots in one pass.

The first important step is establishing focus. In a dark environment, this can be difficult. Lay your light source on the ground pointing towards the portion of the car you want to establish a focus on. I usually lay it on the ground pointed towards the front or back wheel/headlight/tail light, etc. depending on the angle. Once you have established focus (usually via autofocus), switch your lens to manual focus and leave it. You have now locked focus and you’re in position on a tripod; you do not want that focus to shift or refocus and mess with your exposures. Switch to manual to eliminate that possibility.

Also, with each exposure below, I would strongly recommend getting the one or two you are happy with before moving on to the next. It will make it easier from an organizational standpoint and save you time in Lightroom when selecting which exposures to use. And finally, format your memory card in your camera before every photoshoot.

Exposures/Shots Needed

Background (base with no lights)

For this shot, you want to concentrate on the background as you will be layering your light-painted exposures on this non-lit background exposure. No light painting will be required for this. Depending on how dark your scene is, you will need a simple exposure on a tripod for around 30 seconds. I’d say start at 20 seconds or so and see how your photo turns out. If the background is too dark and you can’t make out the details increase your exposure time. If you max out at 30 secs and it’s still too dark, lower your f-stop accordingly to allow more light in.

Side of Car

If you are taking a rear or front three-quarter shot you’ll really want to concentrate on getting this exposure correct. Camera on tripod, timer set to 10 secs and probably 10-13sec exposure to start. Click the shutter to start the timer and move with your light into position ready for the exposure to start. Once the exposure starts (you’ll have to listen to your camera or just count down from 10 for an estimation) move around the side of the car taking note to cover the entire side in the exposure time you selected. This is where it’s important to continually check your photos after taking them to see if you covered/lit what you hoped. Does the light flow with a nice even light streak from front to back (or vice versa)?

Front or Back of Car

This depends on how you have your car positioned. Is it the front of back three-quarter view? This shot requires you to move the light slowly to light the front or back as needed. It could be a 10-sec exposure or it could be simply holding the light steady, or it could be moving the light physically from one corner to the next. It’s really experimentation and you’ll need to check each exposure between shots to see if you got it.

Top of Car

Make sure that you have a firm grasp on your light or if using a monopod secure it tightly as this exposure requires you to hold the light above the car to light both the hood as well as get a rim light over the top silhouette of the car. You do not want anything falling on the car.

Wheels

Silver wheels are much easier to light than black wheels. Note that you may get this exposure when doing the side of the car but you may want to light the wheels with their own exposure just in case. Move the light around in a circular fashion making sure you light all the angles/crevices a wheel can have. Also, take note of where your camera is pointed and position your body and the light out of the direct camera-to-car line of sight. You want any light streaks caused by this exposure for this shot to be away from the wheels themselves, not directly in front. This will make it possible to blend later during post-processing.

Car Lights 

For this exposure, your time can be as low as .5 sec. Similar to the background exposure this will have no light painting needed. Simply make sure the lights are on for the car and take a shot. Start at .5, then move to 1 sec, 2 sec and so on until you get an exposure that shows the details of the light design but does not blow out. The good thing is you can quickly check these on camera as you are not walking back and forth from your camera to the car between each shot. All cars are different and as the lights might not stay on when the car is powered off you may need to start the ignition to keep them on. If you want to get creative, time your exposure to match with using the key fob to flash the lights. Takes a bit of practice but it’s a cool way to get the job done.

Interior (Optional)

This can be a cool exposure to include although I’ve found it to be debatable if it looks better with or without it. For this shot, you will physically place your light source in the car. I find having your light pointed up and resting on the center armrest, between the seats works well but you’ll need to experiment based on the car you are shooting as the interiors are different. It’s similar in process to the car lights exposure where you’ll start with a quick timed shot and go up in exposure time from there. The purpose of this shot is to give the interior illumination. As this is easily adjusted with highlight adjustments in Lightroom don’t worry too much if it’s slightly over or under-exposed. It’s your choice to include it or not in the final photo.

Side Notes

Car Colour

Light-coloured cars (white, silver) are easier to light paint as they reflect light and minimize reflections. Bright coloured cars (blue, yellow, red) are good as well as the colour really pops. Dark cars, especially black cars are difficult to light paint and they may require a few more attempts to get the exposures correct (at least in my experience). They also reflect a lot of background elements. So if you are light painting in a cramped area or one with a lot of background items like a shop or dealership take note of the way those items are reflected in the car. Also, dirt and scratches tend to be more visible on black cars, which means additional cleanup in post-processing.

Do Not Move the Tripod

I recommend checking exposures after every shot and when checking your exposures you should zoom in to see if you are in focus and check to see if you lit what you intended to light. You don’t have to do this every time but make sure what you are shooting is in focus or the whole thing is ruined. You have to be very careful to not move the camera or lens when zooming in. Even the slightest movement can ruin your shots and you will run into big issues attempting to blend in Photoshop. This is where a sturdy tripod comes in. If you happen to move the camera or zoom by mistake, oftentimes you won’t even know your shots are off until you try to blend/layer them in Photoshop. This can easily ruin an entire photo (or photo shoot) Be very, very cautious here.

Keep Your Light Straight

Your light is a long, continuous light wand. Hold it horizontally when doing the side exposure to get that clean, straight, light streak. Other exposures are a bit more flexible because your light will not be in reflecting on the car, but the side is important to get as clean as possible.

Front Wheel Position

This probably goes without saying, but with three-quarter views, either keep the front wheels straight or turned to reveal the wheel/rim. Wheels turned revealing the tread does not look great and you rarely see professional shoots from this angle.

What you Wear

I’d recommend wearing dark clothing, especially shoes. I usually go with all black (t-shirt/sweater, jeans, and sneakers) This will minimize the chances of getting yourself in your shots. Although, if you have a good background exposure to work with you shouldn’t have to worry too much about this. Light clothes and shoes can cause you to show up as blurs in your photos and shoes will appear as steps throughout. Just wear black - it will be worth it.

Side Mirrors

A lot of newer cars have automatic folding mirrors that activate either when you walk away from the car or when the car is turned off. Make sure the mirrors are set to remain out regardless of the car status. All cars are different so you’ll need to find out where the setting is before your shoot. Also, sometimes car unlocks/lights/mirrors can be triggered from the key fob proximity. When shooting, keep the key away from the car and not in your pocket if it’s one that does that.

Ferrari 458 Italia light painted.
Hyundai Kona N light painted.
Audi RS5 light painted.
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